There’s one big difference I’ve noticed between “pet folks” and people who are serious about dog training.
No, it’s not that our dogs are well behaved. Dog trainers, pro and hobby both, struggle with the same behavioral problems everyone else does. (And sometimes we get all new ones–my 35lb puppy, for example, is completely convinced the coffee table is his personal napping platform and that he should be allowed to climb wherever our cats climb.)
The difference is in how we set goals.
When I talk to people about their pets’ behavior and what they want to work on, I usually get a list of a some big items and a few smaller frustrations sprinkled in, with something like “I want him to be less crazy in the house” or “I wish he wouldn’t act like such a jerk on our walks.”
Those could be goals, yes, but they’re vague ones. What does “less crazy” look like? What do non-jerk dogs do on their walks?
Dog trainers almost always have a specific goal; more often, they have a series of interconnected goals on the path to something else. It’s not only that we are always always working on something with our dogs. It’s that we lay out a path out toward where we want to go. And if we don’t know the next step–and I’ve been here with my reactive dog many times!–we ask for guidance as to where to head next.
Behavior is never static. You teach your dog a sit, and it’s perfect. Your dog has the best sit on the block! So you don’t bother to practice for a while, and then you ask your dog to sit… and he’s forgotten what that means.
Dog trainers set goals because we know this. If you’re not moving forward, you’re slowly losing all that good work you’ve done to forgetfulness, lack of practice, and bad manners that creep in when we aren’t paying attention to what we’re reinforcing for our dogs.
So how do you, as someone with a dog in your home but no aspirations towards obedience ribbons or national titles, keep from sliding into the vague goal of “I just want a good dog”?
Well, what does a good dog look like, in your book? Everyone has different criteria, so what’s yours? Does a Good Dog bring you your slippers in the morning, or is it just that she doesn’t growl at the pizza delivery guy?
If you end up with a “good dog” that only DOESN’T do things–doesn’t get into the trash, doesn’t bark at visitors, doesn’t beg at dinner–you need to do some switching in your brain. Instead of saying “I don’t want her to bark at guests,” think of what you want instead: “I want her to lay on her dog bed when we have visitors.” And then you break that behavior down: how do you teach her to love her bed so much she’ll go lay there when there are strangers in the house? Does she know how to go lay down on her bed and relax when you ask her to? Is her bed located in the right place for your dog–say, somewhere out of the way but still in sight if she barks because she’s nervous, or in the middle of the living room where you sit with your guests to watch the game if she barks because she loves visitors? Have you slowly increased her ability to go to her bed in more and more exciting circumstances? Have you made it worth her while to play this game with you, whenever you ask her to?
Try it: set one small, specific goal for your dog this month. Maybe “I want Chief to leave everyone’s appetizer plates alone at our New Year’s party,” or “I want Boomer to be relaxed around my niece and nephew over the holidays.” Break it down into what the end behavior looks like, and baby steps you might be able to take toward that end behavior.
Once you start thinking like a dog trainer, that “good dog” end goal goes from being something vague and maybe even impossible to a series of steps toward a goal. And that feels a lot more reasonable, doesn’t it?
A portrait of me and my puppy, taking a walk in spring 2013:
Vesper scans the street, hypervigilant, jerking from one end of her leash to the other. Her tail is high and stiff. I hold on for dear life, her forty-five pounds of muscle almost more than I can manage. She occasionally stops to sniff or squat but if she spends too long I hurry her up–I have to get to work, after all, and this isn’t exactly a pleasant part of my day.
A woman in a headscarf pushes a stroller around the corner of the block ahead of us. Vesper’s neck stiffens. The hair on her shoulders and then on her rump stands up and her body goes tight. She barks once. I pull on her leash to get her moving, but she’s not going anywhere she doesn’t want to go. She yanks the leash, her front feet coming up off the ground, her tail wagging and her hair standing up everywhere. She barks and barks and barks at the woman, pausing in her pulling occasionally to spin in a quick playful circle. The woman gives me a horrified look and hurries past. Vesper follows her from the end of her leash. Her wheezing and shouting gets a dog down the street barking, and V whips around, lunges to the end of her leash in that direction, her considerable strength straining against my poor shoulders, and starts a new volley of barking, the wagging now stopped. The jovial look has gone out of her eye; now she’s ready to kill.
I drag her backwards to our house. This wasn’t actually that bad of a walk.
If you identify with this, you might have a reactive dog. Some reactivity is pretty normal–most get a little crazy at the sight of a squirrel, for example–and every dog has different triggers. But if you find yourself walking a wild beast that lunges and barks at everything, it can feel overwhelming and like there’s nothing you can do.
But that’s not true at all.
Whether it’s fear-based or simply because your dog gets overexcited, reactivity is a fairly common issue. Here are some of the tools, physical and otherwise, that can help you navigate the world with your dog.
A front-clip harness. It’s not universal, but a lot of dogs are more reactive when they’re on a leash. Often simply switching to a front-clip harness helps a leash-reactive dog cool their head enough to start to respond to their handler’s cues.
Warning gear. It’s amazing how many people are honestly clueless. If your dog really needs space, make it clear by flagging your dog with a yellow ribbon on his leash, dog-people code for “my dog is reactive,” or make it even clearer with a leash that actually says what your dog needs. They’re available on Amazon and not too expensive.
High-value treats. Vesper and I have been together for four years and I still don’t go anywhere without Cookie Pocket. (It is exactly what it sounds like–a pocket full of cookies.) I reward the behavior I want to see more of, so when she makes a good choice–like looking at me instead of staring down an oncoming dog–I reward the heck out of her.
Forethought. If your dog reacts to other dogs, don’t go out for your walk at 6:30 when everyone else gets home from work and takes their dogs out for their nightly walk! Wait a little while and go out when it’s quieter. If your dog gets nervous in crowds, don’t take her to the block party.
Your voice. I’ve had folks with dogs in tow stop and try to chat about the nice weather with me while I’m wrestling my slavering, screaming, muzzled dog who’s in the middle of a reactive meltdown. I’ve learned to speak up sooner rather than later. “I’m sorry, my dog is reactive. Could you please give us some space?”
Patience and determination. Don’t give up. Don’t do it! It can be a long road, but you absolutely have options. I found that once I stopped treating my dog’s reactivity like an emergency and started seeing it as the emotional meltdown that it was–kind of like a little kid’s temper tantrum–I got a lot more sympathetic and patient. Your dog is telling you they can’t handle their feelings. They’re not being jerks on purpose.
Thoughtful, compassionate and positive training. This is the most important tool of all, and it’s a little too complex to put in a blog post. But contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can work out a plan. I did it with my wild child, Vesper–I’m sure you can do it too!
I have been at square one with this dog so many times. Even for someone as committed as I am, it has been a rocky road. I have cried, hard, over her more than I have over any other relationship. She has saved me from myself. She has broken my heart. She has changed me into who I always wanted to be.
I hadn’t had a dog since I was a kid. I wasn’t sure I could handle a border collie, even though I’d fantasized about one since childhood. I thought, maybe a boxer? Or a Doberman. I loved the way Dobermans looked.
She was listed as a Doberman/shepherd mix. I saw her photo and thought, those ears. I had to see her.
She was called Gabriella at the moment. The lady at the rescue had found her in a shelter in Yakima, where her name had been Tulip. She was a stray. She’d only recently been spayed. When the lady let her into the front room where her two gigantic male Great Danes lounged on loveseats I thought, she’s so tiny. It was a trick of perspective that I would grow used to: she expands to fill available space, like a gas.
“She’s great on the leash,” the lady said as she slipped the teeth of the prong collar into place.
She pulled on the prong collar. Especially when we walked past a yard with a cat in it. That was the one moment I wasn’t sure about our future together: she tensed, her body language intense and focused. I wasn’t sure if I was about to have thirty-five pounds of underweight, muscly puppy kill machine on my hands or what. I hadn’t even walked a dog in years.
She barked and lunged. Her tail wagged. I figured, well, at least she wagged. I could deal with that.
Really, I was sold when I saw those ears.
Vespertilio, the Latin for bat. The ears. It means “evening flapper,” which is ridiculous, so I just went with the “evening” bit.
I had wanted an agility dog, but Vesper was more potential than actual agility dog. I thought her long legs and fearlessness would work to her advantage, but she was severely reactive. People and dogs set her off from two blocks away. She learned incredibly quickly, but her emotional reactions were so violent I couldn’t take her anywhere.
It was a lot of work, a lot of learning. I hunted for resources. I read every positive training method book in the Seattle Public Library–literally–and a few “balanced trainer” books to see why people still stuck with that stuff. I joined expensive online classes, worth it and not worth it. I took an excellent puppy class where Vesper and I were blocked off into a corner with visual barriers so that she would stop lunging and screaming at the other dogs.
I was having so much fun with her. Even though my puppy was a very wild puppy, even though she required at least thirty minutes of play and training in the morning and twice that in the evening, even though she was so much crazier than any border collie I’d ever met, she was exactly what I’d never known I wanted. That’s how it often works with first dogs.
It took us a year of dedicated, focused work to get Vesper’s recall and reactivity to a point where she could work around other dogs. She took to agility exactly like I thought she would: she was a natural.
Once we got into competition, though, I had two different dogs. One run she’d be perfect. The next, I could see her overload and break, and then she’d stress-zoom, jump on the judge, run wild. She quickly moved out of Novice and into Open, but things deteriorated fast after that, until I had a dog that would do two obstacles and then run out of the ring without me.
Stop. I pulled her from trialing. Back to the beginning. We worked on focus again. I learned more about engagement and how to be more interesting to V than what was going on outside the ring. I realized how stressed she was in trial situations; my fearless, outgoing dog needed more confidence. We entered NADAC Intro runs so she could do short courses and succeed. We did tunnelers. We did things that were mentally very easy so we could focus instead on Vesper’s emotional state. I learned how to go into the ring without any nerves at all; how to play the game like it was just a game.
We were at a practice facility doing speed circles one night and Vesper wouldn’t take the jumps. I thought maybe she was tired, or distracted. It was very, very abnormal for her to miss a jump.
A couple days later she woke me up in the middle of the night, crying. I thought at first something was wrong with her neurologically, because she didn’t seem to be able to stand.
The emergency vet said, oh, she’s probably just stubbed a toe. I knew he was wrong.
Stop. Our rehab vet figured it out quickly. Her rotator cuff was injured, possibly torn. She might never chase a ball again, if we couldn’t rehab her back into shape. She might never do agility again. She went on crate rest–confinement, basically–immediately. We ordered her a pair of hobbles, a vest that tied her upper legs together so she couldn’t move her shoulders too widely and could only penguin-walk with her front feet.
If Vesper could never run again, I thought, then we needed to have a serious talk about Vesper’s quality of life.
The hope was that, with four months of intensive rehabilitation, Vesper would recover without surgery.
Stop. That didn’t happen. Thank god she has good insurance. Vesper’s awesome rehab team at Sunset Hill worked with the Canapps to surgically repair her shoulder five months after the emergency vet told me she’d stubbed a toe.
Vesper came home and went back into the hobbles.
It was nine months after that first night that our vet told me we could take the hobbles off. It took a year before I was confident enough to ask her to weave again. A year without any agility at all left V with some rusty skills, but we started slow and she remembered a lot.
I’d always disliked her aframe performance though. She’d thud hard into the upside and slam into a two-on, two-off at the bottom, no regard at all for ergonomics there. With her speed, it had to be hard on her shoulders. I read about straight-fronted dogs injuring themselves on the aframe. I’d never known anything about structure in dogs before, but now was a good time to learn. Vesper definitely had a straight front.
Stop. I was going to have to fix her aframe. That should be easy.
In order to fix it, first I had to break it, and that was no problem at all: she just wasn’t required to have any criteria anymore. But convincing her to do a running aframe was something else entirely. Stride regulators worked, but as soon as they disappeared so did her critera.
I bought an aframe and set it up in our yard.
We trialed anyway, with her unreliable contacts, and still managed to win some USDAA steeplechase rounds. She did great in jumpers. She was fast again. Her weaves were beautiful. We were starting to come together. I discovered the yoga mat running contact method and that made a lot more sense to Vesper. She got more consistent. We both got more confident.
We were doing pretty well. I was so proud of us.
We bought a house. I left for six weeks and came back.I published my first pieces of fiction. We got a puppy. We trialed a lot. I drove to Sumner one day a week and Mount Vernon another day a week because the teachers in Sumner and Mount Vernon were both so good, I couldn’t give either up.
Vesper told me, in a few subtle ways, that something was changing. I was very busy. I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or maybe the signals were too subtle. The puppy and my writing were taking up a lot of my time.
At an agility event, Vesper jumped the fence and attacked and mauled a bystander’s dog.
Nothing could say more plainly to me, as a handler and trainer, that I have missed my dog’s signals. I ignored something important, somewhere. I put her somewhere she should not be.
It doesn’t matter that she’d never attacked a dog in quite that way before. It doesn’t matter that it felt unprecedented and unwarranted. It happened. It was the end of Vesper’s agility career.
It was an intense experience for me, but I am almost grateful for it.
I think it is what made me a dog trainer.
Before this, I was an agility person. But now I have this dog, with whom I am deeply in love with, who is dog-of-my-heart, who is not only a danger to other dogs, but also desperately needs something to do with herself.
Management has been the priority first. Vesper has always been good about wearing things, and she was conditioned to wear a head halter as a puppy, so transferring that value to a basket muzzle wasn’t hard. She likes the muzzle because it means we are going to go somewhere fun.
She sees a veterinary behaviorist. She’s on an SSRI. She wears a bandana spritzed with Adaptil. I manage the living shit out of her. (Hey people, when you see someone working with a reactive dog, give them a shout. “You’re doing good work!” It means a hell of a lot to us, because this stuff gets exhausting and it can last a lifetime.)
Fortunately, Vesper is the sort of person who is naturally talented at pretty much everything. Lure coursing, barn hunt, nosework. My goal, which feels almost insurmountable, is to get her CGC. It seems almost like a joke as she’s the opposite of a good citizen, but the thing is: I really do believe in us. She has made me so much better as a trainer. She has made me so much more aware. We have already done things we were told we wouldn’t ever be able to do.
On the SSRI, Vesper is less velociraptor and more dog. Her play style is a little sweeter. I am learning how to engage her with personal play, and it’s working wonders. I am learning how to take her for who she is, instead of who I want her to be.
I have never been a patient person. I have a lot of patience, though. It’s amazing what unconditional love can do to a person.